Twelve years and nine months ago, I bounced around my house, eagerly trying on my purple polka dot backpack, my mind racing with thoughts of my highly-anticipated first day of kindergarten. I couldn’t wait to meet my teachers, make new friends and, most importantly, learn.

Unfortunately, as I grew up and the many stresses of school, college and life piled up, my innate love of learning dwindled. But as a second semester senior, I have found myself rekindling this optimistic attitude that I possessed as a 5-year-old. Now that the pressures of grades and college applications have been lifted, I have realized that elementary-school-me had it right all along: School is a place to learn and explore passions, not to stress and build a resumé.

TIME MACHINE My kindergartener self would be embarrassed by how stressed I was in high school.

TIME MACHINE My kindergartener self would be embarrassed by how stressed I was in high school.

I lost my young, healthy attitude toward school as my academic reality shifted from ungraded projects and historical simulations in elementary school to near-daily quizzes, tests and essays just a few years later. I still loved learning the subject material; the difference was that as a middle and high school student, my intrinsic motivation to learn was buried under seven classes’ worth of rubrics and grades, often making school feel like a prolonged audition for college.

In my last semester of high school, I’ve finally escaped the burden of competition. I no longer feel the need to impress anyone or to build a resume, and I’ve discovered whole new layers of personal passion and motivation that were previously overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. I try to exert all my energy in class toward fully engaging with my education, even if it means leaving my beloved colorful notetaking devices in my bag. Now, I go to school because I genuinely want to learn, participate and create.

Though my stress level has dramatically decreased, in reality I’m probably doing about the same amount of work as before, and my grades have actually improved. The difference is in my attitude — I’m living in the present, and I feel more like I’m choosing to work and learn rather than “needing” to succeed for college and my future. I’m more efficient with my work, since I don’t waste time stressing out in an exhausted state of unproductivity. I’m sleeping more, devoting more time to extracurriculars, cultivating deeper relationships with my friends and family, and even learning how to cook. In short, I’m happier than ever, and at virtually no cost.

Sadly, I know I was not alone in my struggle to maintain a positive outlook on school. Everywhere we turn, it seems like everyone is talking about college. Earlier this year, my seventh grade brother showed me a list of the schools he thinks he plans to apply to in five years. And with plummeting college acceptance rates, it seems nearly impossible to avoid getting trapped by the feeling that everyone around you is your competition, and that you must come out on top.

I admit that though I certainly wish my high school years were less stressful, I can’t say that I know exactly what I’d do differently if I had a second chance. It’s a sad reality that traditional academic “success” in our future-focused culture nearly necessitates stress and an unhealthy lifestyle, and seeing as I cannot look into my future, I can’t say either way whether it was all worth it. Still, this final semester offered the unique chance to take a step back and savor the present rather than obsess over the future, and I know that I’m happier than ever.

Going into college next year, I recognize many of the same emotions that I felt on that night before my first day of school. It’s inevitable that I’ll eventually slip back into periods of stress and anxiety about the future, but I always want to remember how at peace I feel in this moment, on the cusp of the end of my childhood and the beginning of the rest of my life. Maybe it’s time to break out my purple polka dot backpack.